Softly Say Goodnight
Summary: Jiraiya, Orochimaru and Tsunade as a team. How they began, and how they fell apart.
AN: Because I refuse to believe that Orochimaru is nothing more than a two-dimensional villain, even if I have to write his back story myself, damnit. This story will have more than one chapter, just so you know.
EDIT: …Because this site is eeting some of my quotation marks and I don't know why. o.O
Somewhere, Jiraiya is gasping out his last few breaths. Tsunade's smacking his face with a bloodied glove, and it connects with a wet little thwack each time she does it. It leaves a dusting of blood across his cheeks, making them seem roseate and ebullient instead of lifeless and pale.
"Stay awake, damnit!" she shrills, summoning an orb of chakra as she does so. The orb she pumps into his system as if it's the only tether in the world keeping him alive. Maybe it is. Jiraiya, under her ministrations, coughs and splutters, coughs up blood. Tsunade flinches away from him momentarily, like she doesn't know what to expect of someone so near death, although she's been a medic almost as long as they've been a team.
"Orochimaru!" she yells, and he casts an expectant look over one shoulder, pushing his hair out of his way as he does so.
"Cover me!" she says, but without actual cause to do so. She can be forgiven for failing to notice, as he's being covertly subtle. She's merely talking for the sake of doing it to someone who can hear her, instead of the hunk of raw meat under her hands. One of his snakes, a tiny viper no bigger around than his thumb, is currently coiled about his ankle, gleaning what warmth it can from his body. At his gentle urgings, it slithers away to scout the area. He knows it will return shortly.
Their safe hold was once a house, though it's been damaged beyond repair since its glory days. The central support beam has fallen down, charred and blackened and monochromatic against the falling snow, and Tsunade and Jiraiya are huddled under it. Jiraiya's blood stained jacket is tented over them to keep in whatever warmth their body heat can possibly offer. It's not much.
The house had been burned, razed to the ground. There's a charred, haphazard pattern across the floor and along the few walls that haven't collapsed, and the smell of burnt flesh lingers over the place like a wailing ghost, omnipresent and poignant. Orochimaru wonders if he'll ever forget it, and he doubts it.
Tsunade, busy jerking hunks of shrapnel out of Jiraiya's stomach, is fighting back tears. Orochimaru is as well, although he'd never admit it. Secretly, he's glad of the subzero temperatures, and the vicious wind that could explain away his emotions.
Jiraiya is going to die.
They both know it, but one of them has yet to accept it. Tsunade stifles her pained whimpers and looks up. Their eyes meet, over the steam rising from Jiraiya's body into the frigid air. "Orochimaru," Tsunade murmurs, as she pushes her short hair away from her face and behind one ear. The blood coating her fingers is sticky, and the hair doesn't slide forwards again. It looks as if she's pinned it with a crimson barrette. "C-come here for a sec. I can't see what I'm doing and this stupid idiot keeps bleeding and…"
Obligingly, with a final predatory glance out into the swirling snow, he stands and comes to kneel beside Tsunade. She points at Jiraiya's bloody, gaping maw of a stomach. Orochimaru fights down the urge to gag. "Hold back the skin…all right? I need to fix the nerves and the intestines and…I can't…do two things at once." Her forehead is furrowed like a freshly tilled field, and her desperation, frustration, hope is painted across her face unmistakably. She still believes she can save him. But then, she's young, and when you're young, not only are you immortal, but you can conquer anything with enough time and the right disposition.
Orochimaru doesn't like blood. He can barely tolerate the smell of putrescence, of rot, of death. He can't stand the sight of brilliant crimson splashed against his hands and across his clothes. He can't stand it because it's liquid life, and it's being wasted on him.
Tsunade seems not to notice. She works feverishly, without reprieve, her nimble fingers nowhere near frozen, considering the length of time they're spending immersed in blood. She eventually wipes her mouth with one hand, unaware of what's staining it, and then she realizes. Realizes and stumbles backwards and throws up violently onto the snow. Washes her hands off this time, and then returns, trembling. Only her eyes are cold.
Orochimaru looks at her, and takes stock of her aura, and her chakra patterns. They're feeble, flaring intermittently, and if something isn't done, she'll work herself to exhaustion, and then she and Jiraiya both will die. It would almost be fitting for them to perish together, but Orochimaru isn't ready to see that happen. He doesn't like death, doesn't particularly like them, but they're all he has.
"Here," he says quietly as he holds Jiraiya together with one hand and offers the other to Tsunade. "Use my chakra."
She stares at him a moment, her hazel eyes widening in shock or surprise or disbelief, because Orochimaru doesn't offer such things lightly and she knows it. And then she nods once, bites her lip and takes his hand, gripping it fiercely. There's enough excess blood coating their palms to make them stick together.
It's almost reassuring when he feels Tsunade tap into his reserves, because at least something is being done. Even if it's pointless, even if it won't work, it's something. And he'll give and give and give until Jiraiya lives or until they all die together, as a team, the way things should be.
He studies Jiraiya's ashen face, the blood smeared across his cheeks and lips, at his shock of white hair and how it's been dulled to a silver-gray. Jiraiya already looks dead. Orochimaru has seen corpses before, corpses of his making or the making of his enemies. They all look the same, to the point where it's easy to objectify the dead because they have no unique characteristics. The same gray pallor, the same lifeless expressions. But Jiraiya's eyes are closed, not open and glassy and staring at a boundless sky.
And then he stops breathing. Tsunade, noticing, shrieks like a banshee and renews her efforts with all the strength she has. She tells Orochimaru to give him mouth-to-mouth, to make things right, to make this right, but Orochimaru thinks it's difficult to breathe life into a corpse.
But he tries, because it's all he can do. Gingerly, as if he were kissing the forehead of his baby sister, he presses his mouth to Jiraiya's and breathes because Jiraiya can't. Because he's human and he's broken and he's dying, and because no amount of love or fierce devotion or camaraderie is going to keep him in the world.
Tsunade snarls, low and fierce like the leader of a wolf-pack issuing a challenge, and she alternately pounds on his chest and sends chakra into his body, little electric jolts that are sure to do some good, somewhere, to someone. It's said that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings can cause a whirlwind half a world away, so what ramifications would this usage of chakra have?
Their hands are still tightly laced together, bound by blood and bone, and Tsunade's grip is painfully tight. Orochimaru doesn't complain.
Orochimaru has seen death before. He's seen his mother, face-down on the ground, her long hair spread out around her like an obsidian shawl. He's seen his father pinned to a wall by various armaments to various parts of his anatomy. He's seen his baby sister with her skull caved in because the men who killed his family couldn't be bothered to do the job properly, cleanly, and because a three year old had no hope of fighting back.
Orochimaru closes his eyes and tries not to think of that.
And then Jiraiya's eyes flicker open and he sucks air into his lungs of his own volition and Orochimaru rocks back on his heels, watching expectantly. Watching for his companion who has never accepted defeat to fight off death's trumpeted challenge. Orochimaru observes him like a snake, trying to decide if the loss of the strike is worth the gain of the prize.
"Yuck," Jiraiya mumbles, licking his lips. He must not like the taste, because he wrinkles up his nose and squeezes his eyes shut. "S'my first kiss, bastard," he slurs drunkenly. Orochimaru only knows what Jiraiya sounds like drunk because all three of them had gotten inebriated as possible before they accepted the mission everyone expected to be their last. He knows Jiraiya's telling the truth, because the few times he's gotten close enough to anyone to kiss them, they usually end up punching him.
Tsunade is still crying, silently, tears rolling down her cheeks to plip into the cavernous wound upon which she's working. She won't let up, won't give up until she's stitched him closed and fixed him up right and seen him into a hospital bed for weeks, months, however long it takes until Jiraiya is Jiraiya again, and not some shattered marionette with the features of a friend.
Jiraiya raises a hand, tenderly, and Orochimaru can see the effort it costs him. It's of little wonder; most of his abdominal muscles are useless. He brushes his broad knuckles past Tsunade's tear-stained cheek, she catches it and holds it there, unwilling to let go, to let him go, because he might fall further than she could follow if she did.
"So," Jiraiya murmurs softly, hiding behind his pain with a half-grin, the sort of which he's so fond. His voice is husky and aged, hardly recognizable. "A…about…that date…"
Tsunade's sudden bark of laughter masks a sob. "In your dreams, you idiot."
Orochimaru is satisfied, for the time being. Things are as they should be. All is not well, but neither is it lost. He stands, turns his back to them and reclaims his post by the front door of the decimated house. His little viper returns and slithers up his ankle, eventually making its home around his neck. It whispers in his ear that there are presently no enemies in the area, but that he and his friends should keep moving if they want to stay alive.
Orochimaru has never told Tsunade or Jiraiya about the snakes. Tsunade hates them, he knows from experience. Once, she tried to kill a grass snake just for slithering across the road in front of them. Orochimaru had rescued it and sent it safely into the ditch, but she'd glared after it, and later at him. But Tsunade is barely fourteen, and she's squeamish around everything except blood, and so he supposes it's not entirely her fault.
Orochimaru remembers his first snake.
His team had earned a week off, to themselves. It was a precious gift in a time of war, and he'd seized it with both hands and hurried home, hoping to measure off his sister's growth against the wall marked with colorful chalks indicative of the passage of time. Thinking it could double as training, he'd raced his shadow home, to darkness.
He'd stumbled into his house, screaming names no one would hear, and that no one would answer to ever again, and he'd found them in various states of decomposition. The house had buzzed with flies, and wild animals had engorged themselves on the soft tissue of his mother's stomach, and of her face.
He stood there a while, looking without seeing, knowing without accepting, and then he'd ran. Out the back door and past the little water shed and his mother's vegetable patch, he'd ran until his legs gave out beneath him and his sobs caught up with him, and then he'd vomited, like there was something evil inside him that he could only get out by purging everything in his body, up to and including his soul.
The snake had found him high in the branches of a tree, hours later. It did not have to stretch to see him there, did not have to see him to know. It merely flicked its forked tongue out and caught his scent on the wind and decided to speak to him.
"You are a long ways from your nest, child," it had purred, and with its snout it forced branches aside until it could see him directly. The lidless eyes had seemed to mock him.
He liked to say that he hadn't been afraid, although he was. The gaze of the snake had made him freeze inside, had made him feel as if he would never be warm again.
"Was that your family, left to rot?"
His eyes flashed with the same serpentine irises of the snake herself, and he stood up. His chakra was roiling within him like a nest of battling serpents and he followed a branch directly to her head. "Who…" he croaked out, but his voice was rusty from crying. The snake merely tilted her head as he continued. "Who did this!"
"I have no business telling you that," she said disdainfully. There was a distinctly feminine lilt to its voice, and sounded like the rustle of leaves in the fall. "You're being very rude," she continued in amusement. "You have yet to introduce yourself. Do you not think that I would be more forthcoming to someone whose name I have been granted?"
The boy's eyes had narrowed. "…Orochimaru."
The laughter had come, then, like the burbling of water over rocks in a creek. "Orochimaru, hmm…?" the snake tilted her head until she could look at him directly. "You have nice eyes…" she whispered, with just the slightest flick of her tongue.
Orochimaru frees himself from the memories at the light love-bite of the viper. The observant little creature had noticed the state he was in, and had acted accordingly.
"Ssssstay…alert…" it whispers before re-tucking itself about his neck, trying to stay warm in the frigid atmosphere of the place they had been sent to die. It would not abandon him without reason, and he feels a sympathetic twinge. Such a place is not kind to serpents, and he would have liked to send it away, but he needs it.
Orochimaru coughs to clear his throat, and looks back at his comrades, friends, whatever they are to him. Whatever they should never have become. "We have to move," he says matter-of-factly. He doesn't ask if Jiraiya will survive such a thing, because he's already written the other boy off once today, and if he dies again, Orochimaru will have been prepared for its coming. Orochimaru does not appreciate surprises.
Predictably, Tsunade's head snaps up and she hisses at him, "Orochimaru, are you a moron! We can't move him now! He'll die for sure, and after all the work I just put into saving his sorry ass, I'm not going to let that happen!"
Orochimaru looks at Tsunade. Looks at Jiraiya, who in turn looks at him. A silent concession darkens the white-haired boy's eyes, and he pulls his lips into a flat frown. He seems serious, for what's probably the first time in his life. So he presses one hand to his stomach and with the other, he levers himself into a sitting position. He exhales, as if the effort had cost him more than he would ever let on.
"Get me up, jackass," he growls, and Orochimaru knows the words are directed at him. So he steps nearer, offers his hand but not his help. Jiraiya grabs him firmly and Orochimaru leans back to support his weight as Jiraiya hauls himself to his feet and stands swaying. He takes one step, and stumbles, and Orochimaru catches him because he can't let his comrades fall. Tsunade makes a sound like a wounded animal, and then she smoothes out her shirt and tries to look indifferent. She fails.
Jiraiya takes a breath and stands finally under his own steam. "I'm not gonna be a fuckin' burden on this mission," Jiraiya tells her, tells them both. "If worse comes to worse, well…" he shrugs, stupidly, because in the next heartbeat he's coughing up blood. Orochimaru slips under his arm and holds him up, and Jiraiya's fingers dig into his shoulder like iron. Jiraiya regains his breath and continues, stronger than before. "Then leave me behind, all right? I'll make sure I take a bunch of those fuckers out with me. At least you two would get out." He grins a little, as if he's trying to soften the impact of his words.
Tsunade purses her lips, gets to her feet and looks as if she wants to speak, but Orochimaru merely nods. "Very well. But we have to hurry." The little snake shifts about restlessly, its tongue flicking out every so often to taste the air. Orochimaru can't quite hear its murmur of, 'They're coming', but then, he doesn't need to. He can sense disaster on the horizon as well as any soothsayer. "We're about to be trapped. Tsunade, you take point and bring Jiraiya with you. I'll guard behind." It was a sound strategy. Tsunade, with her medic's training, could pack more of a punch than Jiraiya or Orochimaru at the top of their form. But Orochimaru is the best on the team at tactical hit-and-run, and at dealing damage to the enemy without giving them time to counteract.
He supposes it's the snake in him.
Tsunade breathes again, and nods. She takes Jiraiya from him and he 'accidentally' gropes her chest. Orochimaru almost smiles at his proclamation of 'still flat-chested as hell,' and even Tsunade doesn't look homicidal at the quip. She doesn't even try to beat him into the ground, which is her usual reaction to that jab.
And then they eek out into the night, and the cold arms of a bludgeoning snowstorm, and to whatever death may deign to take them.
Tsunade moves as soundlessly as she can over the dusting of fresh snow, lugging Jiraiya behind her. He's only a little taller, but it's difficult at the best of times to carry dead weight. He stumbles along, one arm tightly slung across his abdomen, and he's taken his lower lip into his mouth, biting on it hard enough to stop himself from yelling with pain.
Orochimaru watches them go, swallowed by the swirling snow. Minutes later, he follows. He lopes along, utilizing the snow and the mist like a barrier between he and the rest of the world, disappearing like a wraith at some point to pop up unseen in another. He stalks his teammates quietly, quickly, with a predator's fierce efficiency, and like any predator, he's listening for outside interference. The little viper he sends off on its own to be his sentinel, and Orochimaru knows from experience that it will alert him immediately if it senses trouble.
As he moves, he readies the last few kunai and shuriken that survived the initial scuffle they'd suffered, including one that he'd pulled out of his own arm. After ensuring that they're close at hand and easy to grab, he preemptively forms the hand seals for his latest, but not his last, technique. Kuchiyose no Jutsu. It requires a phenomenal amount of chakra and of control, but Orochimaru knows he has both. He's been practicing with his snakes under the terse, watchful eye of Sarutobi sensei since the first day he'd signed the contract in blood. He's gotten proficient at summoning whichever serpent suits his needs. The little viper is his almost constant companion, and it's the only snake he really likes, or trusts.
He leaves off on forming the last hand seal until it becomes necessary to do so, and he continues chasing his team until he gets caught in a chakra-snare. It bites viciously into his ankle and he hits the ground with a grunt, fingers flying in the final symbol as he does so. Whoever had set the trap pounces on him, a hawk upon a snake, and Orochimaru feels the prick of a kunai against his throat. He goes very still for a moment, and then he reaches up, wraps his hand around the blade before the man can use it. An injured palm is a far easier injury to treat than a slit throat.
The man curses in some other guttural language and wraps his other arm around Orochimaru's neck, putting him in an effective choke-hold. The boy knocks the kunai away with a burst of chakra-enforced strength, and he slams his bloody hand down on the ground in front of him, screams 'Kuchiyose no Jutsu!' in a hoarse, strangled breath.
Whoever the hawk is, it's forgotten that snakes have fangs.
The ground beneath them erupts in a flash of dark brown, angled in a pattern of diamonds and diamond-hard scales. His captor's grip is released abruptly as the man loses his footing, and he doesn't have the chakra control necessary to find purchase on the snake's hide. He screams as he falls, however far it is to earth, and Orochimaru wonders why the hawk has forgotten how to fly.
The snake, the queen, the first one he had ever seen, is angry with him. "Orochimaru, I have told you not to summon me for any reason," she hisses softly. He refrains from telling her that she reminds him of his mother.
"I apologize," he says brusquely. "But my friends are in danger and I need your help."
She laughs at him like she had all those years before, and this time he imagines it's not quite as cold. "Well, at least you summoned me to a place with lots of prey, child. I will do as you ask this time. Do not expect me to do it ever again."
He nods wordlessly, even though she can't see it, and he collapses against the crest over her right eye, clinging to it with whatever remaining chakra he can muster. All he can hear from his perch is the crunch of bones, and all he can see is the flash of scarlet blood from any number of corpses as the queen worries his enemies like rag dolls before discarding them. He hadn't been aware there were so many of them. They scream, and try to run. Some fight, and about the time the queen takes a spear to the side of her neck, she's truly enraged.
She uses a technique of her own, acidic snake venom, and he hears the scorching sizzle as it meets the flesh of the few she hasn't captured and killed. They scream louder, now, more with pain than fear, and eventually the screams bubble off into nothingness as the acid dissolves their skin, their organs, their bones.
She presides over the ruin a moment longer, as if assessing her work, and then she disappears in a haughty, hazy cloud. Orochimaru, bereft of her support, hits the ground, too tired even to protect himself from the fall. He's landed in a puddle of half-dissolved human, and once the realization dawns, it's motivation enough for him to move.
The slime, as he can hardly label it anything else, clings to him, everywhere, sticky and grotesque, and he can't wipe it off, can'tgetitoff! until his little viper companion finds him amidst the chaos and dispels its queen's dirty work. It slithers inside his grimy shirt and rests its little wedge-shaped head in the dip of his collarbone and he lays there on the ground and shivers. He doesn't even realize he's crying until Tsunade points it out to him.
When he doesn't respond, she tries again. "Orochimaru?" Her voice is hushed and careful, like she's speaking in a graveyard. In a sense, she is. Jiraiya is nowhere to be seen, although his blood is still clinging to her shirt. Orochimaru decides that's good enough. Blood is likely less annoying than Jiraiya, anyways.
"Orochimaru?" Tsunade asks, louder this time. She crouches beside him and frets a moment, like she's not sure what to do. And then she falls back on her medic's training, touches his forehead, his chest, searching for damage. Her hands flutter like uncertain birds, as if they've been separated from their flock mid-migration and aren't sure which way to dart.
"Are you all right?" she murmurs, upon finding nothing physically wrong with him.
Out of what seems like nowhere to her, he starts to laugh. He laughs and then he cries harder because he knows exactly why he's laughing. Tsunade makes a startled noise and then pulls him into her lap and pillows his head against her chest, and he just keeps laughing and crying and hiccoughing and trying not to breathe because breath equates life, and he doesn't like life much right now.
Unsure of herself, she strokes his hair and whispers sweet little nothings to him. He's never felt more like gutting her than he does right now. Instead, he hates himself and wraps his arms around her waist and lets her hold him. Around them, the detritus of the battlefield beckons to him. Scattered everywhere are dismembered limbs and broken dreams, a veritable cacophony of despair dredged up from the depths of war. He can't escape it.
Taking life is easier than giving it. Orochimaru remembers his mother during her pregnancy. Remembers how he couldn't even notice at first, and how the only hint of it had been his mother's knowing smile. How a few months later, he could barely put his arms around her any longer. He remembers how she collapsed one day while washing clothes, and how in a few short hours, she'd been in labor.
It takes pain and love and time and devotion to create a life. It takes nothing to crush it.
Eventually, Tsunade urges him to his feet and he lets her. He also lets her wrap her arms around him, lets her hold him close like he needs to be protected from the world. He lets her and he doesn't know why, because what he does know is that he doesn't need her.
Orochimaru hates that he wants to be protected. That he wants to be someone's precious person. That he doesn't want to have to watch a comrade battling death in front of him ever again. Hates it even as he knows it's inevitable, because they're in the middle of a war and no matter what he wants, he is a shinobi, and because he is a shinobi, he will be used in whatever matter the people who pull strings see fit.
Orochimaru knows that he will pay them back for that if it takes him the rest of his life. One day, he will be Hokage, and he will ensure that this never happens to anyone else, ever again.